By Rabbi Ari Moffic
“What congregation are you with?” is the number one question I get from a wedding couple’s family as we are making small talk before the ceremony. I explain that my husband is a congregational rabbi, and I am a community rabbi. “Oh, you just do weddings then.” People often make other erroneous assumptions about my rabbinate after that. I am less than a congregational rabbi. Some people call a rabbi like me a, “rent a rabbi.” My colleague from my days at InterfaithFamily wrote a great blog about why this term is so problematic.
A community rabbi works with the majority of American Jews who are not members of synagogues. The community we work with is the vast pool of people who want Judaism in their lives but who are not members “anywhere.” It is ironic because I hear people say how sad it is to offer a family a bar/bat mitzvah ceremony “outside of community” as if ceremonies in a Temple are not made up almost entirely of that family’s friends and not the general membership of the synagogue, just like a ceremony in a living room, hotel or other location is similarly made up of that family’s people.
As a community rabbi, it is true that a huge part of how I spend my time is preparing people for life cycle events and then officiating the event. From July 1, 2017-July 1, 2018, I will have officiated at 19 ceremonies to bestow a Hebrew name upon a baby or child, 12 bar/bat mitzvah ceremonies and 18 weddings. Since I meet with people preparing for these events multiple times and field countless emails and phone calls, I am a relationship rabbi, not a rent a rabbi. And, after the event is over, I view my sacred task as staying in touch with these families and remaining at least one of the rabbis in their lives. Facebook and now increasingly Instagram is a huge help with this.
This year, as part of the Open Dor Project grant, I was able to launch an offering based on bringing Jewish learning to families who are not members of synagogues. I have worked with 30 families this school year with children who are mostly in Kindergarten through 7th grade. I have called the venture CoHere meaning that we are Coming Here (to their homes), that is is Co-operative, that it is Coherent and whole and enough.
Who are these families? These families are a microcosm of American Jewish families today. They are families with children with ADHD and autism. They are families who have lived through divorce and added new children and parents and extended family to their midst. These are parents who have had or are battling cancer while raising young children. Eighteen of the families have one parent who isn’t Jewish. These are families with children and parents who are of color. These are families who are busy. They have children in activities most days after school. They have parents who are both working from before 6:00am to midnight. They are families who interact with other families daily as they carpool, drop off, pick up, schmooz, work out together, Facebook each other, and host playdates. They are not lacking people in their lives. They crave individuality, flexibility, affordability, ease, and joy when it comes to bringing Jewish learning to their kids.
Many Jewish funders won’t fund community rabbis like me because they feel the work undermines the work of synagogues. Open Dor understands that community rabbis need funding because we are reaching people that have not been previously served. Yes, programs like CoHere are designed to bring in revenue, but these kinds of fee for service programs will *always* rely on additional funding so that we can provide the kinds of resources these families need.
In addition to building relationships with people at major transitional moments of their lives like the arrival of children, the coming of age of their children and their weddings, I am often the recipient of inquiries from colleagues about anything “community rabbi related.”
What kinds of calls and emails does a community rabbi receive? I got a phone call recently from a woman with a 17 year old son who would like to now start his Jewish learning and “have a bar mitzvah” before he graduates from high school. I am about to officiate a bar mitzvah for a man who is getting married and did not have a bar mitzvah as a thirteen year old. It was on his bucket list to learn to read Hebrew. I am asked to sit on the beit din for conversion candidates for my rabbinical colleagues. I am asked weekly to help other rabbis and educators brainstorm programs and develop solutions to problems they are dealing with. I recently co-officiated a funeral with the Priest who I had previously joined in marrying a couple as we buried their baby girl. This is the sacred work of being a community rabbi, and there is little funding for this work outside of a grant like the Open Dor.
If Jewish communal leaders in a city care about meeting the needs of the majority of their Jewish families, then they are going to need to support community rabbis who are doing this work day in and day out.
Rabbi Ari Moffic is the founder of CoHere. To learn more, visit: coherechicago.com.